Opinion

The Great Debate

McCutcheon: Should the rich speak louder?

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court handed down its most important decision on campaign finance reform since Citizens United. The decision, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, seemed to divide along familiar ideological lines, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing the majority opinion for five conservatives and Justice Stephen Breyer, writing the dissent for the four liberals.

What really divided the court, however, wasn’t partisan politics pitting Republicans against Democrats but two conflicting views of the First Amendment. Which view you embrace depends on whether you see the McCutcheon decision as a principled triumph for unpopular speech or a First Amendment disaster that will ensure that a handful of the richest Americans can use their vast resources to drown out the voices of everyone else.

The First Amendment view embraced by Roberts and his conservative colleagues is rooted in individual liberty. There’s no right in our democracy more fundamental, Roberts began, than the First Amendment safeguards for “an individual’s right to participate in the public debate through political expression and political association.”

People exercise both these rights when contributing to candidates, Roberts said, whether they are a “lone pamphleteer” or someone who spends “substantial amounts of money.” He maintains that Congress may not “restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others.”

The First Amendment that Breyer and the liberal dissenters embrace is far different. Breyer objected that Roberts’s focus on “the individual’s right to engage in political speech” fails to account for “the public’s interest in preserving a democratic order in which collective speech matters.”

In defense of publishing leaks

Congressman Peter King (R-N.Y.) wants Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald locked up for publishing the classified information leaked to him by Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old former security contractor who divulged details of the NSA’s PRISM data mining program to the Guardian and the Washington Post.

“No right is absolute. And even the press has certain restrictions,” King told Fox News’s Megyn Kelly on Wednesday, “I think it should be very targeted, very selective, and certainly a very rare exception, but in this case, when you have someone who has disclosed secrets like this and threatens to release more, then to me, yes, there has to be, there should be legal action taken against [Greenwald].”

For all King’s bluster, he knows perfectly well that the U.S. is unlikely to prosecute Greenwald. No U.S. journalist has ever been successfully prosecuted for publishing classified information. This may seem counterintuitive. If it’s against the law to leak classified information, why is it legal for journalists to publish it?

Bradley Manning and the real war on leaks

Army Private First Class Bradley Manning in handcuffs for his motion hearing in Fort Meade in Maryland June 6, 2012. REUTERS/Jose Luis Magana

The most significant dispute over leaks this week is not in Washington, where Attorney General Eric Holder is under fire for the searches of journalists’ files. It’s 40 miles north in Fort Meade, Maryland, where the trial of Army Private First Class Bradley Manning begins Monday.

Manning is facing a court-martial, or military prosecution, for sending 700,000 government documents to Wikileaks.  It was the “biggest leak of classified information in U.S. history,” as Reuters reported, and the U.S. government believes that makes Manning an enemy of the state.

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